The rise and rise of the ebook
New column exploring the world beyond physical books
Reading now: a coffee and a Kindle. Photograph: Will Ireland/Future via Getty Images
When the first commercial ereaders were launched, in the late 1990s, the publishing industry expressed concern about the future of the paperback. Its apprehension was understandable. Ebooks offered a less expensive, more environmentally friendly alternative to the material book, as well as offering their purchasers the incomparable advantage of being able to store an entire library in a single device no bigger than a paperback and weighing considerably less.
Anxiety soon became an economic reality as authors began exploiting the digital novelty. Stephen King was the first big name to release a new book exclusively in eformat, and writers whose publishers were unwilling to take a risk on their work were able to launch it into the world with little outlay. Indeed, the publishing industry is now at a tipping point, with almost as many digital books being published as traditional paperbacks.
Elibraries now offer digital tomes to lenders (more than 1,000 titles are borrowed each month from Ireland’s public libraries), while etextbooks for teachers and students are readily available as blackboards give way to whiteboards and technology becomes an integral part of the way the curriculum is accessed.
If the books industry tends to see these advances as a threat, for the reader the changes have largely been positive. A reader’s chief concern remains the best way to get to a good story, historical or fictional; the value is not in the format but in the imagination fuelling it.
The ebook has opened up a range of new experiences to readers seeking something more than just escapism. For the reader, the relationship between digital and material modes of reading is not oppositional. The book as physical object may have the capacity to hold memories as well as stories within its thin paper sheets – dog-eared pages that mark our love of imagined worlds – but digital books offer the potential for a more interactive experience. Ebooks might actually be the saviours of the industry, engaging those for whom technology shapes the way they read the world.
It is a myth, however, that ebooks are cheap: there is, of course, the 20p book promoted by Amazon (current offers include Yann Martel’s Life of Pi , to coincide with Ang Lee’s film version, and John Lanchester’s Capital ), and many classic texts are available for free from sites such as gutenberg.org. But for new titles by big names you can expect to pay an average of ¤12.
For those who have yet to buy into the ebook phenomenon, the main financial concern is the initial investment required to access material. So if you are thinking of making the leap, the following are some considerations worth noting.
The basic ereader is book-sized, book-shaped and weighs about 170g. Screen sizes vary, although larger ones are better for perusing magazines and newspapers. The latest ereaders can hold up to 2,000 books, and many have options to add external memory.